Our reviews: 'The Last Year of the War'

The Book: "The Last Year of the War" by Susan Meissner

Publisher: Berkley; 1st Edition edition (March 19, 2019)

The Synopsis: Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa 14-year-old in 1943 — aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity. The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. But when the Sontag family is exchanged for American prisoners behind enemy lines in Germany, Elise will face head-on the person the war desires to make of her. In that devastating crucible, she must discover if she has the will to rise above prejudice and hatred and re-claim her own destiny or disappear into the image others have cast upon her.

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"The Last Year of the War" by Susan Meissner was a great summer weekend read — all that was missing was the beach. Many of us are aware of the detention of people of Japanese heritage that occurred as the country entered World War II, although it was never discussed in any of my high school history classes (Is it now?). I was totally unaware some of those who are of German and Italian birth were also placed in internment camps and the fact many were repatriated to their native countries. Elsie and Mariko form a bond that gives them hope for the future, at a time when everything familiar — their homes, friends, belongings and identity — have been stolen from them. There were concerts. Movies. It was like a pretend city. Real, but not real. While a work of fiction, "The Last Year of the War" reminded me of "The Diary of Anne Frank," a teenage girl imprisoned during WWII and still having hopes and dreams of life after the war. I admired Elise and her spirit — she remained strong no matter what cruelties the war threw at her and she always had hope for the future, even at the end of the book, knowing the quality of her life will never be the same. Having Alzheimer's (which she has named Agnes), she will once again become imprisoned and lose everything she knows and loves. It is well worth your time.

— Margaret Button, associate features editor

Meissner's "The Last Year of the War" presumes to tell a story we supposedly haven't read before, following the experiences of a young German-American girl during World War II, during her internment and deportation to war-stricken Germany. Truthfully, we've all read a dozen novels from this now-boring perspective, the overly defensive German protagonist who is pointedly Not A Nazi, as if the author is under the impression they alone can combat that old Hollywood All Germans Are Nazis trope. These stories are so common in books and in film, the Not A Nazi/German Savior protagonists have become a trope of their own. WWII from the perspective of a German is not a unique hook; even placing a large part of the story at a Texas internment camp for German-American and Japanese-American detainees is not enough to make this premise stand out in the multitude of WWII narratives available to us. For that it promises us another story: how Elise reunites with her estranged wartime friend Mariko, to return the book Mariko was writing during the war that was left with Elise, and to learn the ending. The author forecasts that reunion pretty hard, using a split timeline of Elise in the present making her way to Mariko, interrupted by her recollections of the war and the dawn of their friendship.

Unfortunately, Elise's present intense attachment to their relationship does not match the truth of it. The reader is provided a glimpse at an ordinary, unremarkable high school friendship through just a few brief scenes: a shared school project, a family dinner, a trip to the pool. The protagonist spends more time pining for this relationship than the author does depicting it. And in the end, their reunion is also unremarkable, just a conversation and a couple of pages about catching up. Despite these flaws and the somewhat disappointing ending, the author does present an entertaining and readable novel, made more enjoyable to me by its extreme homoerotic subtext. There are so many scenes in this book that completely fail to represent a platonic friendship: Elise's slightly racist fascination with Mariko's beautiful eyes, her focus on the water droplets glistening on Mariko's eyelashes at the pool. Her lament that Alzheimer's may steal her memory of her children and grandchildren, even her late husbands, but the real loss would be to forget Mariko. Elise at one point bemoans being separated from Mariko by "war and men." The more I read, the more I anticipated these moments of seemingly inadvertent romantic fixation. I enjoyed reading this book, even if I didn't like it. If you liked Markus Zusak's underwhelming "The Book Thief," you will like this book, as well.

— Meggie Baker, calendar editor

"The Last Year of the War" could have been a poignant and introspective piece of historical fiction at a time when America is once again targeting and placing individuals of specific races and immigration statuses in camps. I say it could have been because it isn't. I don't understand what this book is supposed to be and that's the problem. It's a romanticized version of World War II, seen through very darkly tinted rose-colored glasses. And that's the main problem I have with historical fiction — and this book specifically. The book was problematic for me for several other reasons as well. One of the more troublesome issues for me was the constant lack of emotional connection between the characters, be it between family members or during the reunion of two women, now in their 80s, who have not seen each other since they were teenagers. And then there is the writing itself, which at times, seems to be more of a recitation of events (told through flashbacks and present-day interludes) than a well-told (fictional) first-person narrative, as it is supposed to be. If you have an interest in learning about the American internment camps during World War II, I wouldn't suggest starting with a work of historical fiction. In fact, I wouldn't recommend reading this book at all.

— Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry magazine editor

"The Last Year of the War" is a brilliant idea for a story. A young girl of German descent and one of Japanese descent meet at an internment camp in America during World War II and strike up a friendship. The elevator pitch is really attention-grabbing and I'm immediately sold on hearing more about their relationship. However, that's not really what Susan Meissner's work of historical fiction gives us. It's a tale of intertwined geographics and timelines, bouncing between wartime, the immediate aftermath and jumping ahead 60 years into the future. The time we spend with Elise and Mariko together at the camp is rather minuscule for a 400-page book that at times feels over-crammed with details and leaves me needing to undo my belt after Thanksgiving dinner.

There are some truly poignant thoughts and passages within Meissner's story, and when the two women are finally reunited, I held my breath and had real feelings of joy. Unfortunately, that's the feeling I was looking for throughout the book. Instead, I felt there were mostly overly-detailed passages, too-contrived conveniences and half-measures that left me wanting more.

In Chapter 23, Elise thinks to herself, "I'd been witness to unspeakable evil " But had she? Obviously, she had lived a tough couple years in an American internment camp and seen some death and destruction, but it all seemed too nameless and faceless to really hit home. Who are we meant to hate or even truly oppose? The book never really climaxes. The final chapters seem more written by a 15-year-old Elise than her adult self or Meissner. Not to say the prose is childish, but Elise's adult years play out like envisioned by a young adult who hasn't yet experienced adulthood. The romance and sex I had been keyed up for over 300 pages of Meissner's solid story-telling never lands. If you're into historical fiction, this book is worth checking out, but with things like "So Far from the Bamboo Grove" or "Night" out there, I needed a little more from "The Last Year of the War."

— Mike Walsh, sports writer

This book promises to pack a historical punch from an interesting perspective, and at times it does, but often Meissner's fast-paced writing style glosses over important moments. I enjoyed reading this book for what it is, light historical fiction. It's a genre I know well and one that I often turn to — I'm a big fan of the family-driven drama in extreme wartime settings; give me a Ken Follett trilogy any day. But this book lacks in character development at times, often leaving me to ask "Why is she so torn up about this friendship?" "What's going on with her husband?" The family relationship with Elsie, her parents and brother was perhaps the most developed, and in those moments I found myself fully engaged in the story this family was living. It's a big war, and there's a lot to say, but 400 pages covered a lot of ground and did so quickly. Unfortunately, some emotion got lost in the shuffle. For me, this was like a Danielle Steel book of WWII family drama that I'll recommend to my mother. I don't regret reading it, but I'm sure I'll quickly forget it.

— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features